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Category: Books (page 2 of 4)

Birth Marks

Birth Marks Book Cover Birth Marks
Hannah Wolfe 1
Sarah Dunant
Simon and Schuster

I've read all but one of Sarah Dunant's novels set in Renaissance Italy, but I knew she had started her published writings with crime.  Three of them feature P.I. Hannah Wolfe. Being written in 1992, it is unnerving to read a book where no one has a mobile phone, and so solving an investigation is so very different from today, a mere 25 years on.  It's in the style of Chandler with a struggling, lonesome private investigator, full of sardonic quips and cynical views of life, but also a single woman aware of her place in society and in the eyes of other people - both men and women. This gives the book a nice edge without it feeling as if it is dealing with "issues".  The plot is speedy but filled with sadness as well as mystery. It's interesting to see a well established author at the beginning of their career, especially as her recent books have such different settings, though they still concern women swimming against the expected tide.  If you want a short, thoughtful crime page-turner this fits the bill, though as it is out of print in UK, I read it as a gift from someone who loves second-hand bookshops.

The Chalk Man

The Chalk Man Book Cover The Chalk Man
C J Tudor

I suspect this book will get a lot of fuss when the paperback comes out later this year, and I will not be surprised if a film comes along at some point later (which personally I would avoid if it does). Having said that, it deserves to have a runaway success.  Without question this is a way-cut-above-the-rest novel.  I was disappointed with the opening: yet another description of a dead girl, and not long after a stupendously grisly depiction of an accident. However what makes this book stand out, is its subversion of expectations that continue to remain credible, pushing on the narrative and delving into the characters' minds.  One narrator is split in two by telling the story as a child and as an adult.  It continually confounded me, but its revelations (maybe too strong a word) are subtle but vice-like gripping.  It is a real web of a book and if the author is the spider in the middle, I got caught and eaten alive at the end.  Brilliantly written.

- I must add here that I listened to the audio book read by the mesmeric Andrew Scott and by Asa Butterfield who also does a fine job.  (And if you do listen to it, you just have to accept the fact that despite the doubling younger/older but same character narrator of the book, in the audio version Butterfield is English and Scott is Irish - it matters not)

The Travelling Cat Chronicles

The Travelling Cat Chronicles Book Cover The Travelling Cat Chronicles
Hiro Arikawa

This is a gentle and very moving account of one man's road trip around the friends from his past.  The objective of his journey is to find someone to look after his cat.  Gradually tiny layers are peeled away as we learn about him through these meetings and flashbacks into his past where the friendships began.  Added to this the voice of his cat is mixed into the narrative, and if you are not a cat lover, don't let this put you off.  The device is not cute but another way of quietly revealing what lies beneath the surface of this man's life.  It is utterly beautiful. The author prefers to show rather than tell, allowing the reader to construct the jigsaw puzzle-like nature of the narrative.  It being a road trip, the landscape and places of Japan play  a very important part in the proceedings.  The descriptions are vivid. The book is  sad but life affirming, and often very funny.  It slowly got under my skin and entered my heart.

The Dark Circle

The Dark Circle Book Cover The Dark Circle
Linda Grant

A novel that beautifully captures the voices of a range of people from different classes, many Londoners,  who find themselves consigned to a countryside sanatorium for tuberculosis sufferers.  The now forgotten cruelties of TB and its treatment come alive in this book set in post-War Britain. It is also a shrewdly observed fictional slice of social history, firmly based in a very real past that shows us how our lives have (been) developed to the present day.  The story is shot through with humour and unsentimental reticence which makes it all the more engaging. The limitations of its settings are actually its strength as the writing draws the reader into the lives of the patients and the medical staff.  Linda Grant delivers the best combination of a storyteller revealing the human heart through a vivid tapestry of social, political and medical histories.

Waterstones Promotion

Waterstones – buy here!

I am way behind on my book reviewing here, but I can recommend Sarah Millican’s How To Be Champion in this promotion which I am reading on and off, as it is a dip-into book.  I find her a very, very funny stand up comedian, and this book opens out her stand-up character (which very much seems to be”her”) onto wider and more serious issues in her life, and life in a broader context.  It’s making me laugh a lot, and it’s making me think which is an appealing mixture.

Actually you can’t do better than the audio version of her reading it herself:

How To Be Champion – audio


Balancing Acts

Balancing Acts Book Cover Balancing Acts
Nicholas Hytner
Jonathan Cape

This book is partly a book about business.   It may be the business of  theatre but it's business nevertheless.  It tells of Hytner's 12 years running the National Theatre.  The reason his time was so successful there was because of his harmonious and necessary relationship with his business partner Nick Starr.  Although broadly the former was Mr Arts and the latter Mr Money, they understood each other implicitly.  It is a fascinating balancing act and really makes you understand how incredibly difficult it is to make theatre a successful business without losing its integrity.  But business is business in whatever field and because theatre is my interest, this book gave me a business insight I previously would have expressed no interest in.

Also if you have no interest in theatre as an art form, Hytner is such an engaging writer that I think the book is worth a go. He really knows his stuff.  He is very insightful on his own directing and productions and there's a lot to learn from him - you don't need to know much about the subject to enjoy his writings

What it isn't is a gossipy showbiz book, or an insight into Hytner as a person.  But it's an easy read: he is funny, charming and modest (not self-effacing).  He owns up to mistakes and explains how he learnt from them.  If theatre is a mirror of life, then there is much to learn from this book.


Goodbye Christopher Robin

Rachel Kneebone at the Foundling

Graeme Simsion

In The Name Of The Family

In The Name Of The Family Book Cover In The Name Of The Family
Sarah Dunant

The second of Sarah Dunant's novels about the Borgias, and her fifth set in Renaissance Italy.   She is a superb writer.  She has a rare talent as a novelist/historian. Her books are rooted as much in historical fact as she is able, and her dazzling imagination brings the daily lives of these extraordinary people alive - you know what they taste, what they smell of, what they wear, how they clean themselves, what illnesses they suffer and what diseases they carry.  She marries this imaginative intimacy with the epic narrative of Italian and Western European history of the period.  It is gorgeous, intoxicating, gripping and ultimately very moving.  I was surprised to find how emotional I was at the end of reading it.  Her characters - these real historical rulers - had lived with me in my head.  Her research has been vast and must have been enormously hard work, but she never writes to show off her knowledge: a rare and valuable accomplishment.

(If you haven't read her previous books, then best start with her previous Borgias novel, Blood and Beauty - better still with her trilogy of novels centring on ordinary women in Renaissance Italy. )



A couple of readers have asked what has happened to my book reviews.  The truth is I have been a bit lacksadaisical with my reading.  Sometimes I’m just not in the mood.  I did get very caught up in the podcast S-Town.  I was going to write about it but

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Cousins Book Cover Cousins
Salley Vickers

I've long meant to read Miss Garnett's Angel (and have failed to do so), so it was a pleasant surprise to receive Cousins as a present.  I am a sucker for novels about families and this one exceeded my expectations.  Told in three female voices from three generations, the story revolves around two men.  The title is deceptively simple, the plot complex as it plays with the gaps and silences between people and generations. Each voice reveals more of the family's stories and secrets, none of which feels contrived. It is an epic, gripping story involving war and (for me some little-known British) politics which shape the domestic and the intimate. Religion and mysticism also shade the book's whole.  It is based on Salley Vickers' own family.  Part of her background as a trained psychotherapist provides her already substantial writing talent with a disarming insight into the characters who, for me, really lived within the pages.

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